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Memories of Professor Sir Christopher Zeeman

Professor Sir Christopher Zeeman delivers a Christmas Lecture

Sir Christopher Zeeman, Founding Professor of Mathematics at the University of Warwick, passed away peacefully in his sleep on Saturday 13 February 2016 at home in Woodstock, aged 91. Sir Christopher holds a special place in the memories of many of our students, alumni and staff members, who have shared their stories as a tribute to his life.

Christopher was a hugely charismatic character: his enthusiasm, intellectual excitement and breadth of interests were combined with an old fashioned charm and the ability to make people feel the centre of his attention. Mainly delivered via the blackboard, his talks were perfectly judged to maintain attention and excite interest, and were given at a speed and with a clarity that allowed the audience to take in complex ideas. He was equally at home lecturing to school children, students, academic staff and non-university audiences.
David Rand, Professor of Mathematics, Director of the Warwick Systems Biology Centre and former Chair of Warwick's Mathematics Institute.

A simply brilliant life! A brilliant mathematician who founded the Warwick maths department with principles that have stood the test of time. Chris was also a wonderfully inspiring man who was a talent magnet and someone who had the ability to convey the most complex concepts so simply. A true Warwick legend.
Patrick Dunne, Warwick alumnus and Council member.

It was after seeing Professor Zeeman's enthusiastic presentation to sixth formers that Warwick became the only university at which I wished to study mathematics. Starting in October 1969, the course was far from easy and we seemed to cover in our first year what other universities did in three. The innovative approach which allowed us also to take courses in other faculties gave a breadth to our university experience which others did not have. Although I went on to become a chartered accountant, my love and fascination with Mathematics has continued and I think that this is in no small part due to the way in which he was able to transfer his love of the subject to others.
Katy Bell (née Wild, BA Mathematics 1969-72)

Christopher was running the Math department at Warwick with great success when I was Professor of Economics there in the 1970s. We became friends and together organised a couple of his famous “rencontres” between mathematicians and people from other disciplines including Economics. Christopher made the Math Institute a fascinating and stimulating place even for ignorant outsiders like myself.

When I moved to France I was struck by the difference in Christopher’s attitude to mathematics in comparison to that of the Bourbaki school. Christopher was generous and open both in personal relations and in his intellectual interests. I saw him several times when he was Master of Hertford and on the last occasion that I saw him he offered me a bottle of vintage port from the 20s. One day I will open it and drink it with friends who also knew Christopher. Knowing him was a privilege and a pleasure.
Alan Kirman, former Professor of Economics at Warwick

It was a privilege to attend his inspiring lectures on catastrophe theory – always the highlight of the week! We still have a cardboard catastrophe machine though the rubber band is a little perished nowadays.
Patrick and Christine Hughes (BA Mathematics 1969-72 and BSc Mathematics 1969-72)

I was at Warwick from 1979-83. It was an honour for me to study at the Mathematics Institute under the direction of Christopher. He will be much missed by all of us.
Stephen Slebarski (PhD Mathematics 1979-83)

Warwick School of Mathematics June 1965As one of the original graduate students in this photo, I am very sad to learn that Chris has died. The atmosphere of the original Maths Institute, which owed such a lot to Chris and David [Epstein], has remained with me as an ideal setting for learning and collaboration with a minimum of formalities and ceremony.

I completed my graduate studies at Warwick in 1966 and took up Chris's offer of £50 towards the costs of attending the International Congress of Mathematicians in Moscow that summer, before joining the staff of Liverpool University. While at Warwick I was working on leave from Cambridge, so I don't figure as a Warwick graduate, but I regard it as my real academic home.
Professor Hugh Morton, University of Liverpool

Christopher Zeeman and I go back to 1969 when I joined Warwick as the first appointment in the new Department of Biological Sciences. I was the only academic, I had a small research group of two post docs and three research students working on interferon and we had a couple of offices and one lab. By contrast Maths, led by Christopher, was already buoyant. He had started Maths at Warwick in a very distinctive way - making excellent staff appointments, and teaching innovative courses, focusing on pure maths.

Standards were high and Maths attracted very good students, so much so that they claimed that students were already at Honours level at the end of their second year. So students could spend their third year on advanced maths courses or take courses right across the University - music for example. Maths had lots of seminars which every one went to, lots of glass 'black boards' along the corridors and in the tea room, and very high standards for teaching and research. So I went to see him to ask why he was so successful; he told me and I modelled the new Department of Biological Sciences on it.
Derek Burke, Founding Professor of Biological Sciences at Warwick

Chris was the one of the most inspirational people I have ever met – he gave me a lifelong love of Pure Mathematics, in particular Knot Theory and Catastrophe Theory. As an undergraduate in 1969, I found the department, Chris, and the tutors he recruited, approachable, challenging, encouraging when I struggled with the abstractions they were teaching us, and overall a place of fun, and commitment to quality learning.

I can’t thank him enough for what he taught me in his classes, and for the opportunity he gave me, through the department he set up, to discover a small part of the world of Pure Maths and a way of thinking which has allowed me to go on and fulfil many interesting roles in a number of fascinating environments.
Carolyn Story (BSc Mathematics 1968-71)

It was a joy and a privilege to attend the Catastrophe Theory lectures in 1977 and the words and images of Professor Zeeman have stayed with me always. I continue to read and study the subject with great fascination and enthusiasm.
Lorraine Dodd (BSc Mathematics 1974-77)

Although I have many fond memories of Chris Zeeman, I was particularly pleased and honoured that he attended my 21st birthday party in 1968 and discussed plumbing with my father for much of the evening.
Margaret Gunn (BA Mathematics 1966-1969)

He headed up the Maths department during my undergraduate years (1981-84) and the pinnacle of that experience was the Catastrophe Theory course in year 3. I still have his book on the topic, which has survived many house moves. The content nowadays looks scarily complicated, but I keep it out of a desire to maintain memories of exceptional years.

I recall discussing a potential application of the theory with the Professor before the final exams, and he turned my whole hypothesis on its head! To be in room with him just felt a little like being in the presence of someone truly exceptional. My first class degree still rates as my highest achievement in my own mind and it feels as though I was fortunate to have the privilege to be at Warwick during Professor Zeeman’s years.
Andrew Rome (BSc Mathematics 1981-84)

I studied Maths at Warwick from 1973-76 – back in the early days when much of the campus was a muddy building site. Chris Zeeman and Rolph Schwarzenberger were absolutely inspirational. They were both so incredibly patient with this student who adored maths, but didn’t always grasp the concepts as quickly as others. Forty years on, I am still teaching maths – I hope with the same enthusiasm that they showed. Chris did so much to inspire others, and his legacy is the vast number of children and adults who derive joy from maths, and want to pass that on to future generations.,
Angela Almond (BSc Mathematics 1973-76)

Professor Zeeman plants trees at Warwick

Although I mostly found mathematics at Warwick rather rarefied for my tastes I certainly enjoyed Professor Zeeman’s lectures on catastrophe theory. I also recollect him studying the mathematics of boomerangs and still retain a slight feeling of guilt at having damaged his favourite boomerang by making it collide with the Mathematics Institute. A splendid lecturer!
Rhys Owen (BSc Mathematics 1971-4)

I joined the department to study Mathematics in 2007, and so Sir Christopher was seldom seen around the department. However, I did manage to catch the odd glimpse at afternoon tea and biscuits when I graduated to the post graduate common room. I never knew him, but I'd like to say thank you for what was the most interesting and enjoyable 4 years of my life. He provided so many of us with the forum to learn the Mathematics that we wanted to learn - whatever we liked - and for that I will always be grateful.
Alex Roberts (MMAths 2007-11)

I chose both the subject and University after reading Sir Christopher’s entry for Mathematics in the Penguin “Which University” guide. He opened my eyes to the world of Pure Mathematics, something I had only glimpsed at school. 32 years later I attended Sir Christopher’s lecture at the opening of the new Mathematics Building and was surprised to discover that I knew what he was going to say before he said it. In fact he had based part of his lecture on one he had delivered in my 3rd year as part of the Catastrophe Theory course, and despite the intervening 32 years, I could suddenly remember the whole lecture series. His voice and delivery worked like a time machine on my brain and I realised that everything I had learned was still there, but usually inaccessible. It was a supernatural experience opening a window on the distant past that sadly faded within a matter of days.

After the lecture I sought out Sir Christopher to tell him how great an influence he had been on my life. I wish I had been able to tell him it more clearly, but I said that I had not used any of the maths facts or techniques I had learned, but that nevertheless the mathematical training (in particular the power of choosing the right level of generality for a problem in hand) had influenced everything I had done since. I will always be grateful to him for endowing me with this gift.
David Taylor (BSc Mathematics 1970-73)

I remember him teaching one of my first courses when I arrived in the maths department at Warwick in 1987 - the foundations of mathematics. And one element I remember from that was when you dig down and down you end up having to rely on meaning in language for the axioms. He told the story of how people like Russell tried to dig down and down to find these foundations with such humour.

As well as the foundations of mathematics, I know that he was behind the foundation of the maths department itself at Warwick and what quickly became - and has sustained as - one of the best maths departments in the country. Those of us who graduated in maths from Warwick have all benefited from his legacy.
His work on catastrophe theory, for which I was later privileged to enjoy his teaching, was clearly a defining area.
Martin Haigh (BSc Mathematics 1987-90)

I studied Maths at Warwick 1971 – 1973. There were 2,000 of us there then, and quite a few building sites. But there was a real buzz about the place, and the Maths Institute was the place to be. For a year I lived in Leamington, and often hitched back there in the evening. The Professor once gave me lift, and we had an interesting chat about where mathematical ideas / insights came from. The bath seemed to be the preferred option!

He delivered a series of lectures on the new Catastrophe Theory. These were packed, though the subject was non-examinable. The ideas are still useful to me today. I think I only went to one other non-examinable lecture, Germaine Greer on 19th Century poets. We were privileged and fortunate to have 20th Century icons at Warwick.
Peter Lord (BSc Mathematics 1971-73)

I was a Ph.D. Student in the late 60s. I always remember him demonstrating one of René Thom's catastrophes with the aid of a British Rail plastic spoon. I also recall him taking hundreds of photos of waves breaking to illustrate the theory by spending hours standing in the sea.
Roger Knott (PhD Mathematics 1967-70)

We had student rep meetings (two undergraduates from each year) where Professor Zeeman would prompt the discussion on how the faculty could be developed and particularly relationships between students and the faculty. As a joke I suggested he should invite us all to dinner...he jumped on the idea and invited us there and then. There were eight of us welcomed into his home filled with curios and books – the hall had a range of preserved animals in woodland settings in glass cases. Both he and his wife were enthusiastic hosts keen to open up conversation at dinner. Professor Zeeman always had great stories to tell about his research and the journey to setting up the maths institute. He seemed joyful at seeing the advancement of students and the energy they generated.
Philip Hodges (BSc Mathematics 1980-83)

Student with Sir Christopher ZeemanSimply put, without him, I would not have had the education and the exposure to mathematics which I had. I truly enjoyed my time at Warwick and I am grateful for the wonderful grounding it gave me.
Max Peacock (MMaths 2004-08)

When I arrived at the University Of Warwick in the autumn of 1982 to pursue my graduate studies in mathematics (algebra), I did not know that I would be studying representation theory. Professor Christopher Zeeman; who was then the Chairman of the mathematical institute at Warwick, is the one who told me (while he was making his afternoon cup of tea at the department kitchen!) that the department had appointed Professor J. A. Green (Sandy Green) as my supervisor.
Ahmed Khammash (PhD Mathematics 1982-88)

For me his lectures were inspirational, though I had to work to understand most of it and disagreed with some (female brain topology in particular).
My favourite memory came later when he was on the same table at the 25 year (1970) dinner. I questioned the need to "live for success" preferring "live for happiness" and was encouraging my children to do the same. We talked at length, despite the disgust of the highly financially successful fellow table members.
Frances A Woolaston (BSc Mathematics 1969-72)

Would I have gone to Warwick without seeing Chris Zeeman doing the RI Christmas lectures? Glad I did. On the evaluation form for his "Applied Sources of Pure Mathematics" course I asked: where does he get his (batik) shirts from? The next lecture Chris explained: he bought the material in Malaysia and had his tailor in HK make the shirts. RIP Professor Zeeman
Clive Saunders (BSc Mathematics 1980-83 and MSc Mathematics 1983-85)

Chris often gave the welcome lecture to the sixth formers [on open days], looking the archetypal professor with his wild hair. My friends and I would sit at the back as Chris got out his notes on paper going yellow with age. He’d quote several statistics which were always well out of date and we would enjoy raucously correcting him. But one thing he said has always stuck with me. In answer to his rhetorical questions, why university, why maths and why Warwick, he would say:
‘Study at least one subject in sufficient depth to affect you for life. And for the rest of the time, do whatever you enjoy.’

He’d explain that the Warwick maths degree was designed with this in mind and that we would have the freedom to do any courses in the university provided we did a minimum of 50% maths - and would enjoy telling the sixth formers that they could do up to 2/3 other courses…. Later, as a maths teacher, I would repeat his words to my sixth formers and I hope they helped them decide their future directions.
Ian Knight (BSc Mathematics 1977-80 and MSc Mathematics 1980-82)

Chris Zeeman interviewed me in spring 1966 at the detached house Mathematics Institute. Chris was very genial and welcoming and despite not being able to answer all his questions nor understand some of the answers either, I was offered a provisional place. Grades achieved, I embarked upon a very happy three years at Warwick to read Mathematics in the autumn. In summer 1969 I emerged with a B.A. 2.2 Mathematics degree and girlfriend! I am fortunate to have followed a fulfilling career in maths as a teacher and local authority adviser and inspector, and also been happily married to my girlfriend for 45 years with three children and now six grandchildren. So without Warwick Uni and Chris Zeeman all this wouldn't have happened. Thanks Chris!
Brian Wardle (BA Mathematics 1966-69)

I was there at the Royal Institution in 1978 when Professor Zeeman gave his iconic Christmas Lectures. I came home and asked if I can go to Warwick since, in the mind of a transfixed 12 year-old, this was the place where maths was fun. Six years later, I duly turned up at Gibbet Hill as a maths undergraduate.
Early in my final year, it was announced that Professor Zeeman would be retiring, meaning that we would both be leaving Warwick in the summer of 1988. A pleasing symmetry, I thought.

The turn-out for his final lecture was extraordinary. Only a small proportion of students were taking the third year undergraduate course in catastrophe theory; the rest, myself included, were there to be part of Warwick history. He was clearly touched by the thunderous applause as his lecture ended.
David Kendix (BSc Mathematics 1984-88

March 2016

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